Wednesday, December 30, 2020


"It really is very dangerous to believe people. I never have for years."
"Sleeping Murder"


Last one for this year!

When she was a child, Iwanaga Kotoko was chosen by youkai (all kinds of supernatural beings, spirits, etc.) to become their Deity of Wisdom in exchange for one eye and one leg. With her sharp mind, she would help these supernatural beings whenever they were in trouble they themselves couldn't solve, acting as arbitrator and detective. Ever since, Kotoko has become a feared figure in the supernatural world together with her reluctant boyfriend Kurou (who has supernatural powers himself), as they solve quietly solve problems that involve the supernatural. While few people in the 'normal' human world know anything definite about her link with supernatural, Kotoko, as the daughter of a family in good standing, has gained a reputation as an extraordinary problem solver among the people in a position to know. While anything on Kotoko is extremely hush-hush, those with connections know that if they find themselves involved with something that might be not be quite "normal", Kotoko can probably sort things out.

In Shirodaira Kyou's 2019 novel Kyokou Suiri - Sleeping Murder, which also sports the English title Invented Inference - Sleeping Murder on the cover, Kotoko is asked by the CEO of the Otonoshi Hotel Group, Otonashi Gouichi, to become the arbitrator in an odd family gathering. It was his wife Sumi's father Denjirou who first started the Otonoshi Hotel Group, but after his death, Sumi became the new CEO and succeeded in making the brand name big both in and outside Japan. Twenty-three years ago, Sumi was stabbed to death by a robber on the street. It turns out everyone around her had a motive to kill her: Sumi was a highly stubborn woman and husband Gouichi saw that Sumi tried to push the development of the hotel chain too hard too fast, and it would've led to disaster in just a few months. Sumi also didn't allow their three children to live their own lives, deciding for them where to work or whom to marry. But it turns out each and any of them had a solid alibi for the time of death of Sumi, and ultimately, everything went well after Sumi's death, as Gouichi as the new CEO managed to save the hotel group, while the three children all got to live their lives the way they wanted. Kotoko is therefore a bit surprised to learn that Gouichi was the murderer of Sumi. To be exact, Gouichi struck a deal with a kitsune youkai: if the kitsune would kill Sumi for him in a way so he and his family wouldn't be suspected, he'd buy a piece of land and have it developed to drive off a rivaling pack of kitsune. They both kept their part of the deal, but now the elderly Gouichi has not long to live and he regrets what he has done. He wants to show to his children that a murderer will be punished sooner or later by Heaven, but in order to make his children accept that he killed their mother, he must find a fake solution to convince his children, as they are sure not to believe in the kitsune story. Gouichi decides to confess to the murder on his wife, but then 'challenges' the children to explain how he killed Sumi. Obviously none of them will actually guess the truth, but Gouichi figures that if they can come up with a plausible solution themselves, they are more likely to actually believe it. Kotoko is asked to judge which of the three children will present the most believable solution.

Invented Inference - Sleeping Murder is the third book in the Kyokou Suiri series, which has both Invented Inference and In/Spectre as its official English titles. A few months ago, I reviewed the second book, a short story collection, but in a way, Sleeping Murder can also be considered a kind of short story collection. For the first half of the book consists of short vignettes that focus on Kotoko as a detective, before we dive into the main storyline of the Otonashi Sumi murder. The previous two volumes focused more on the supernatural mystery plots, as well as the notion of the 'invented inference': this series has never been about finding the truth, as it usually involves supernatural beings. Instead, this series has been about cooking up lies that people were willing to believe. Most stories revolve around Kotoko coming up with a rational, realistic-sounding solution based on the available clues that humans were likely to accept, even though the truth is that some supernatural being did something. Invented Inference focused on what people fundamentally like about mystery novels, being a story about logical reasoning, but also about solutions that were entertaining rather than truthful or realistic.

Sleeping Murder is interesting in the sense that the notion of the invented inference takes a backseat in the first half, as the chapters here function more like a character study of Kotoko. In the first chapter for example, we follow a young Kotoko, back when she had just entered high school. Because the school's mysery club hasn't seen many new members and is dangerously close to being shut down by the school, the two remaining members try to convince Kotoko to join them, figuring that the school would never dare to close the club of the daughter of the well-connected Iwanaga family. The scheme hatched by the club president explodes in his face when Kotoko instantly sees through the president's true intentions, but ultimately, she decides to become a member of the club anyway, becoming what you may almost call friends. Several years later, the club president would recount another episode about Kokoto to his uncle, who is looking for information on Kotoko. In another chapter, we follow Kurou's older niece Rikka, who is on the run for Kotoko and Kurou as explained in the first book. She becomes the newest tenant in a rather troublesome apartment: the previous three tenants all committed suicide there. Rikka doesn't seem to worried by that fact though and seems to live a peaceful life there, becoming friendly with all her neighbors. She quickly moves out of the apartment the moment Kotoko and Kurou find her trail though, but before she leaves, she tells her neighbor that Kotoko will likely explain why there were three suicides in that room, and why there won't be anymore. While short, this was a pretty interesting mystery: the second person in the room to commit suicide had been dumped horribly by her boyfriend, and it was the same boyfriend who later committed suicide there too. However, he did that after three months living there and he had a new girlfriend, so it wasn't like he suddenly felt remorse. The solution involves the supernatural in a very clever way, and an excellent example of how concepts like ghosts can be used fairly in a mystery story.

The Sleeping Murder storyline makes up for the bulk of the volume and the part most in line with the other volumes. Three people have gathered to come up with a theory that will prove Gouichi's guilty of murdering his wife: Rion (daughter of the oldest son), Kouya (husband of oldest daughter Kaoruko) and Shin (second son). The one who comes up with the best solution will be given an advantage when it comes to dividing up the inheritance, but it's Kotoko who will decide who will provide the best solution that will fit the known clues and which will be convincing enough (as she alone knows that Gouichi actually struck a deal with a kitsune). What follows is an interesting conversation where Kotoko acts as discussion leader, skilfully leading the three family members to a plausible solution by pointing out contradictions and by secretly hiding hints in her utterances. As seen in the first novel, Kotoko's skills do not simply mean she can come up with a convincing solution, she also knows how to set them up so everyone will be willing to believe them. In order to do so, Kotoko will also uncover secrets nobody had ever thought about, and make everyone first come up with one theory first, only to have them also discard themselves and thus set-up the next theory. The way in which Kotoko acts like a teacher and slowly shows the path to her invented truth is as amusing as always. The murder case itself though is a bit simple, so it never becomes really complex, but the story does show off what Kotoko does best

And like I mentioned earlier, this book does a better job than the previous books at showing the character Kotoko. Whereas previous stories focused on her as a problem solver, this book shows how humans look at a fearsome character like Kotoko, a small girl who looks almost like a doll, but who hides a darkness far greater than anyone can imagine. The first half of the book showed Kotoko through the eyes of characters like her classmates and Rikka, while in the Sleeping Murder storyline, we see what happens if Kotoko is forced to work on a case which ultimately only involves human actors and see how her morals may not coincide with human morals.

Purely seen as a mystery novel, Kyokou Suiri - Sleeping Murder/Invented Inference - Sleeping Murder is probably not as strong as the previous two books. The episodes collected in this volume are intentionally designed to function as a character study of Kotoko, showing her off in various minor mysteries from different parts of her life. Some of these mysteries are quite amusing, but the limited length of these episodes do make the invented inference angle of the series weaker. In a way, Sleeping Murder also feels like a kind of set-up for the sequel, like a prologue for things to come. I don't know for sure whether we'll have something 'big' next time, but Sleeping Murder is like silence before the storm, focusing on Kotoko as we know her now before throwing her into a more dramatic storyline. Kyokou Suiri - Sleeping Murder is not the best volume in the series, but the previous volumes were highly entertaining and if you've gotten that far, it's definitely worth it to read this volume too as it's still an entertaining mystery novel.

Original Japanese title(s): 城平京『虚構推理 スリーピング・マーダー

Friday, December 25, 2020

Turnabout Memories - Part 10

"I have to go over everything that's happened. I have to remember"
Another Code R: Journey into Lost Memories

For some it might've felt like the longest year ever, for some it might've been busier than ever, but whatever the case, this year is almost ending. And as per awful tradition, this is also the time I look back at the reviews and other posts that stood out the most this year. By which I mean: the posts I actually managed to remember, because my memory is as bad as ever. Anyway, I'll be picking up some of the more interesting titles I covered this year in this posts, so take a look if I mention a post that you may have missed. And don't take the categories and lists here too seriously. The other tradition on this blog is that I tend to sit on a long list of reviews that have to wait for months before they are published, so in terms of planned posts, I'm already somewhere in June 2021... At the very least, I can reveal that there are plenty of interesting books awaiting in the new year, so I hope I'll find old and new readers of the blog next year here.

Best Project Outside The Blog!
Also known as the self-promotion category! Though honestly, it's weird to see that Locked Room International managed to publish two translations by me in one year. The Red Locked Room was certainly very exciting: it's the first (!) English translation of the works of Ayukawa Tetsuya, despite being such a major figure in Japanese honkaku mystery fiction. Locked Room International had been playing with the idea of a best-of collection of Ayukawa's work for a long time, but it took a few years before the stars all aligned and I was able to get started on the unique short story collection. The book features truly the best of Ayukawa's impossible murder and perfect alibi short stories, and there isn't even a Japanese publication that has the same story line-up! Ayukawa's name is immortalized not only through his own writing, but also through the Ayukawaw Tetsuya Award which is still the most exciting Japanese award when it comes to uncovering new, puzzle plot mystery writers and any fan of the classic puzzle plot mystery genre should really take a look at this book because Ayukawa really deserves much more name recognition beyond Japan.
Higashigawa Tokuya's Lending the Key to the Locked Room was of course only released last week, so it's hard to gauge reception at this point, but long-time readers of the blog will know I absolutely adore Higashigawa's work: they're genuinely always funny to read, and the way he also makes sure to properly incorporate the comedy with the core mystery plot is awesome: his stories are never mystery and comedy, but he makes sure there's synergy, and the mystery plot wouldn't work without the comedy. This may have been his first full-length novel, but this book already shows why he's perhaps the best known comedic mystery writer in Japan, as the story about college student Ryuhei's antics as he finds himself becoming the suspect in two murders, one of which of the locked room variety, is both cleverly plotted and funnily written.

Other welcome news was of course the re-release of my translation of The Decagon House Murders by Pushkin Press. To be honest, it was a weird feeling seeing how my first translation of a novel moved to a different publisher, but it's great so see new readers discovering this great novel. The text has been brushed-up thanks to new editors and a bit of help of myself, so if you hadn't read the book yet...
As for other translation work, there's always more in the pipeline!

The Silliest Mystery Story! Seen in 2020!
Glamping Kaijiken ("The Curious Glamping Incident")

Episode 961 of Detective Conan is something one has to experience. No sequence of letters, words and sentences will ever truly manage to capture the sheer madness of this story which purports to be a mystery story, but which may be described as a glimpse at the depravity of mankind. It's a complete deconstruction of the mystery genre, a rejectment of all that's sane and logical. Even if I start describing the episode, about how Conan, Ran and Sonoko find the body of dead cross-dressed man with awful make-up on his face, a piece of crab in his mouth and a piece of paper in his hand during a glamping outing, it still doesn't even begin to describe what this episode really is. Watch at your own peril.

Most Interesting Mystery Game Played In 2020! But Probably Older!
Phew, picking one title was a lot harder than I had expected! Interestingly, this was because I didn't play any mystery games that I loved unconditionally. Even the best detective games I played in 2020 all had elements that didn't quite mesh with me, which I also dwell upon in the respective review. With a game like Gothic Murder being amusing, but too limited in scale, Sigma Harmonics filled with too many minor annoyances, Death Come True at times barely a videogame and Tangle Tower being oh-so-funny, but a bit lacking in terms of core plot, I was mostly hesitating between AI The Somnium Files and Paradise Killer. But with Paradise Killer's emphasis on exploration rather than allowing the player to pick up on clues/foreshadowing and building theories themselves, I feel AI The Somnium Files was the more interesting detective game.

As for non-mystery games, I still play Animal Crossing: New Horizons daily! I'm also charmed by the ports of feature phone games G-Mode has been publishing on the Switch: I talked about Herakles no Eikou III on this blog before, but I looooved the horror novel game Rinji Shuuden ("The Extra Last Train"). I also managed to finally complete Disaster Report 4+ Summer Memories which was... rather disappointing. I loved the third game, but the tone of this game is just so different from the previous games it just didn't mesh with me. Also a special mention for the Pierre the Maze Detective illustration books! 

Most Memorable Pandemic-Inspired Mystery
Isshun no Ayamachi ("A Moment's Mistake")
The theatrical release Detective Conan: The Scarlet Bullet was postponed to 2021 due to the pandemic, making it the first time there was no new Conan film released in April in 24 years, but the pandemic also inspired some creators to come up with new mysteries. I haven't seen/read all of them of course, but there have been a number of "Stay Home"-themed mystery television dramas and short story collections in Japan. I myself discussed two of them, and while I liked how the writer of Kindaichi Shounen went out to gather the voice actors and other actors to film an original mystery drama using Zoom, my vote still goes to the return of the legendary Furuhata Ninzaburou series. The Columbo-inspired television series stopped in 2006, but writer Mitani decided to bring the lieutenant back by using his weekly newspaper column to serialize a brand new short story. The story was not about any aspect of the pandemic like staying home or using video chats, but simply written because Mitani wanted to cheer people up again with a familiar face and the result was a fun little story with a beloved character I hadn't seen for a long time, and I hope Furuhata will return again in the future for more joyous occassions.
Most Impressive Cover! Seen in 2020!
Kimi ni Yomasetai Mystery ga Arunda ("I Have A Mystery I Want You To Read")

Some truly awesome covers have appeared on this blog this past year. Both books in the Isekai no Meitantei series have fantastic fantasy-style covers, the way Danganronpa 7 forms a set with volume 6 is a nice touch and Jojutsu Trick Tanpenshuu ("A Collection of Short Stories With Narrative Trickery") actually has a narrative trick hidden in its cover art: it doesn't really show in the e-book version I think but it's really a funny idea for the physical book. My choice is ultimately really only based on personal taste: I like the clean art style and use of color of the cover of Kimi ni Yomasetai Mystery ga Arunda and it has a nice youthful school vibe that fits the contents of the book. 

Favorite Theme of 2020!
Recontextualizing stories/stories-within-stories

Last year, I happened to read a lot of mystery novels that dealt with supernatural elements, and this year, I thought it was interesting I came across a lot of novels with either a story-within-a-story premise, or mysteries that later recontextualize previous happenings in a very different manner. The latter is of course a fundamental part of mystery fiction in general, as most stories will revolve around err, mysteries which are later explained (recontextualized), but in a few novels I read this year, you'd have a story that's apparently solved, but that's later revisited once again to show the story had another, hidden function. The most obvious example of this was Kimi ni Yomasetai Mystery ga Arunda ("I Have A Mystery I Want You To Read"), which is explicitly about the (badly written) mystery stories by Anna: these stories all stand on their own, but once we leave the story-within-the-story level, the narrator always end up with poking holes here and there in Anna's stories, putting her stories in a completely different light. Other favorites of this year like Neko ni wa Suiri ga yoku Niau ("Deductions Suit Cats Well"),  Jojutsu Trick Tanpenshuu ("A Collection of Short Stories With Narrative Trickery") and Medium - Kourei Tantei Jouzuka Hisui ("Medium - The Medium Detective Jouzuka Hisui") too have stories that are initially "over" but later revisited again to show it had a secret, secondary plot running beneath the surface. I love these kinds of stories which have both a properly developed "front" and "back" plot.

The Just-Ten-In-No-Particular-Order-No-Comments List
- Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei ("The Hourglass of the Time-Space Traveller") (Houjou Kie)
- Jojutsu Trick Tanpenshuu ("A Collection of Short Stories With Narrative Trickery") (Nitadori Kei)
- Yuureitachi no Fuzai Shoumei ("The Alibis of the Ghosts") (Tomonaga Rito)
- Neko ni wa Suiri ga yoku Niau ("Deductions Suit Cats Well") (Miki Akiko)
- Clara Goroshi ("The Murder of Clara") (Kobayashi Yasumi)
- Mukashi Mukashi Aru Tokoro ni, Shitai ga Arimashita ("Once Upon A Time, There Was A Body") (Aoyagi Aito)
- Medium - Kourei Tantei Jouzuka Hisui ("Medium - The Medium Detective Jouzuka Hisui") (Aizawa Sako)
- Isekai no Meitantei 1 - Kubinashi Hime Satsujin Jiken ("The Great Detective of the Other World 1: The Case of the Headless Princess") (Katazato Kaname)
- Kimi ni Yomasetai Mystery ga Arunda ("I Have A Mystery I Want You To Read") (Higashigawa Tokuya)

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

The Professor and the Puzzle

 "Archaeology is the search for fact ... not truth."
"Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade"

Like I mentioned in the review of the first volume in this series: despite the cover art, these stories aren't scary at all. I'd love to read a series with the atmosphere invoked by this art though! I really have a weakness for occult-historical mysteries.

Most students who sign up for Renjou Nachi's folklore course are lured by her looks, but it usually doesn't take long for them to drop out: Renjou may have a reputation as one of the better known figures in the academic field of Japanese folklore and anthropology, but that's because she's highly unorthodox and dares to take on very risky positions in academic discussions and many students in her class curse the day they signed up for her class as they battle with the vague essay assignments at the end of the semester. The person who has to suffer the most under her is her teaching assistant Naitou Mikuni, who recognizes her brilliance, but who is also the one who has do all the administrative work whenever Renjou spends their lab's whole year's fieldwork budget within a month and keeps skipping classes. Renjou's brilliant mind however also comes handy in criminal cases and for some reason, she has a knack for getting involved with murder cases whenever she's doing research on a new subject. Kitamori Kou's Sokushinbutsu - Renjou Nachi Fieldwork II ("The Buddhist Mummy - The Fieldwork of Renjou Nachi II", 2002) collects five more adventures of Renjou and Mikuni as they do research on Buddhist statues, essays on the meaning of famous Japanese myths and... murder.

I read the first volume in this series earlier this year and it was the folklore angle in particular that attracted me. Mitsuda Shinzou's horror-mystery Toujou Genya series builds upon actual folkloristic and anthropological concepts to create fully fleshed-out, but ultimately fictional histories to set-up unique religious ceremonies and local deities that are used in the murders there, but Renjou Nachi Fieldwork is built upon actual folkloristic and anthropological research and a lot of the themes and topics discussed in these stories are actually applicable to real-world understanding of history and anthropology. You learn a lot about Japanese history here, usually from a religious angle as Renjou's research topics often focus on material culture (so a lot of religious statues/graves/etc.), but at times, she'll also be analyzing well-known myths from Japan and focus on the meaning behind them or how they changed throughout the centuries. Kitamori obviously did a lot of research to write these stories and for the history buffs under us, this series really deserves some attention.

In the opening story Hikuyou ("Hidden Memorial"), Renjou and Mikuni are out on fieldwork to research a group of stone figures hidden away in a grove in a deep forest. They suspect these stones were to memorate some event, but there are no legends or stories passed on in this region that give any details about them. Renjou decides to use this topic as an essay question. Some days after the deadline, the police visit Mikuni about a murder case: the victim was burnt until there was little left of her, but they eventually identified her as a student in Renjou's class and people had seen her 'argue' with Mikuni about the assignment before her death. As far as Mikuni knows, she only came to ask some questions, but the case seems to take a weird turn when the computers in Renjou and Mikuni's office is ravaged by an unknown person. I feel that this series is at its best when there's a good link between the underlying folkloristic theme and the murder, but that isn't the case here. A lot of things happen, but the link that connects the stone statues to the murder is fairly weak (it basically could've been any research theme). I like how this ultimately becomes an academic mystery in the sense that the motive is firmly set within a college setting, but the folklore theme is underwhelming.

Daikokuyami ("The Great Darkness") is my favorite story of the collection, where I feel the mystery and the underlying folklore theme work the best. Mikuni is working on a paper about how the image of deities changes with time when he's visited by the student Sugizaki Naoko. She hopes Mikuni can help her brother, who has become a member of a shady university club. He's been duped in buying an expensive Buddhist statue, believing the statue to be a representation of himself and that owning it will bring him fortune. Mikuni earlier published a paper on modern sects and cults, and Naoko believes that the university club is actually some kind of cult. Mikuni tries to find Naoko's brother at the club room, but is soon overwhelmed by the mood there and is nearly persuaded to become the club's supervisor (a supervisor is needed in order to be recognized by the university), until he's saved by Renjou. Some days later, Naoko's brother is found hanging in a grove, with two Buddhist statues at his feet. Apparently, he wanted those statues desperately because he believed them to be his sister's representation and he killed the antiques dealer to steal them, until he hanged himself in remorse.  It's not difficult to guess how the real murderer slipped up even if you don't have specialistic knowledge, but the core murder plot is nicely combined with Mikuni's research theme to bring a satisfying story.

And this story reminded me of that time in Fukuoka, soon after I arrived, when a classmate (also an international student) mentioned in class that he had been invited to some gathering about happiness by someone he met at some party, and that the teacher immediately told him not to go and that it was probably some front for a sect or new religion and that that occasionally happened around campus.

Renjou has not shown her face in college for a few days at the start of Shinomitsurudama ("The Orb of Overflowing Blood"), but she's eventually found by the police, inside a car next to a corpse. Renjou had been at a small private academic gathering, where a few freeminded academics could exchanges ideas and talk about folklore in complete freedom. Renjou recalls she had been discussing the meaning of the meaning of the magatama as part of the imperial regalia of Japan with the victim, but at one point all of them had been knocked out by some sleeping medicine and while the others all found themselves dumped somewhere near their home, Renjou and the victim were left inside a car. Renjou becomes a suspect because a magatama was found inside the victim's stomach. Another story where the underlying folkloristic theme is actually far more interesting than the current-day murder. The theories Renjou poses about the symbolism of the imperial regalia are really interesting and really show off how captivating historical detectives can be. And while the motive is original in the sense that it only makes sense if you tie it to Renjou's theory, the actual murder itself is rather boring and the way it's proved who the murderer really is based on how the magatama was introduced in the victim's stomach was just silly.

In Sokushinbutsu ("A Buddhist Mummy"), Renjou and Mikuni investigate a 'Buddhist mummy' (Buddhist monks who mummified themselves alive by not eating and drinking) who for some reason has no history at all. A local scholar suspects this mummy was actually not merely a Buddhist mummy at first, but a complex amalgation of various religious figures from Japanese mythology, but Renjou doesn't confirm anything. Some time later, Renjou and Mikuni are contacted by the local scholar's daughter, who says her father is missing, but Renjou instantly knows where to look. A rather short and to-the-point story. This is a good example of when the motive of the culprit does connect brilliantly with the folkloristic topic and while the reader won't be doing much deducing themselves (you're never going to guess where the local scholar was simply based on the clues), I think the mystery of the actual meaning of the Buddhist mummy was pretty good and nicely founded in actual folkloristic research.

In the final story Okage-kou ("Thankful Trade"), Mikuni is surprised by the sudden arrival of Sae Yumiko, who is to become the newest member in Renjou's lab. This gives Mikuni some more free time to focus on his new assignment from Renjou, as he has to investigate the meaning behind a certain folklore tale that resembles the story of the straw millionaire. Meanwhile, Mikuni is also approached by Mera, the teaching assistant at Professor Mikami's lab. Yumiko used to work in Professor Mikami's pre-modern literature research group, and Mera wants her back there, and hopes Mikuni can help him. As far as he knows, Yumiko got transferred to Renjou's group on her own will, so Mikuni tells Mera he can't do much about it, but Mera doesn't seem like he's going to back down. Ultimately, the story manages to connect Mikuni's research to the story of Yumiko, but it's a bit forced. It's a complete coincidence that Mikuni's finding just happen to be mirrored in the circumstances surrounding Yumiko, and again, I think the actual folkloristic research in the meaning of the myth and its variations is much more interesting than the problems surrounding Yumiko.

Sokushinbutsu - Renjou Nachi Fieldwork II is a book that I wanted to like a lot more than I actually do. It's weird, but I think the historical and folkloristic topics Kitamori addresses in these stories are immensely entertaining and interesting, and the surprising anthropologic interpretations of the various topics do make for a great mystery. But these 'background stories' don't always connect well to the current-day mysteries Renjou and Mikuni face and more often than not, the historical mystery is simply more interesting than whatever crime the duo stumbled upon. I wonder if a purely historical approach like in Kujira Touichirou's Yamataikoku wa Doko Desuka? ("Where is Yamatai-koku?") would've worked better for me, for far too often, I feel myself hoping they just push the current-day crime aside and just hurry up to explaining to me exactly why the image of deities change over time or what the hidden meaning or origin is behind this or that myth. I think I will read more of this series, but I have a feeling it'll be mostly for the historical plots.

Original Japanese title(s): 北森鴻 『触身仏  蓮丈那智フィールドファイルII』:「秘供養」/「大黒闇」/「死満瓊」/「触身仏」/「御蔭講」

Friday, December 18, 2020

番外編:Lending the Key to the Locked Room Released

When The Red Locked Room was released earlier this year, I mentioned how Locked Room International didn't have a full-length Japanese release in 2019 after the annual releases of The Decagon House Murders (2015), The Moai Island Puzzle (2016), The Ginza Ghost (2017) and The 8 Mansion Murders (2018). And that's why I assume few people were expecting to see Locked Room International publishing two of these books translated by me this year.

Whereas the spring release The Red Locked Room was a short story collection, I'm pleased to say that we have something for lovers of novels too this year. Tokuya Higashigawa is a name which has been featured a lot on this blog, as he's a personal favorite of mine. The current president of the Honkaku Mystery Writers Club of Japan specializes in comedic mystery stories, but don't let the antics in his novels fool you, as the comedy is also camouflage for cleverly-plotted mysteries. Lending the Key to the Locked Room (Misshitsu no Kagi Kashimasu, 2002) was his first full-length novel and also the first novel in his popular Ikagawa City series, which is currently still running. This series is perhaps unique in the sense that while it's a series, there's no fixed detective character. These stories set in and around the titular city feature an ensemble cast with different colorful characters all solving part of the mystery. Or they make things more confusing. In Lending the Key to the Locked Room, the reader is introduced to the college student Ryuhei who finds himself in a lot of trouble: what should've been a nice night watching a mystery film together with a friend in a private home theatre, ends with him discovering his friend's dead body, but the apartment is completely locked from the inside, meaning the only viable suspect for his friend's murder is.... Ryuhei himself! And he's pretty sure he didn't do it. When Ryuhei learns that the police is after him for another murder, he seeks help from his ex-brother-in-law, the hapless private detective Ukai who at times seems like he's in complete control and at times completely out of his depth with this case. Solving a locked room mystery is hard enough without the police chasing after you...

I first read the book myself in 2011, and in the review I wrote "A funny novel with a satisfying plot-structure that is sure to entertain the reader," which is an opinion I still had when I went through the book again while translating it. And on a side-note: huh, that was the first review since this blog got its current look. But it's no secret that I love mystery stories with a comedic atmosphere and Higashigawa always delivers in that respect. Higashigawa's work has been rather popular on the screen too by the way, with numerous adaptations of his novels. The best-known adaptation is probably the series and movie of Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de AKA The After-Dinner Mysteries, but the Ikagawa City series, including Lending the Key to the Locked Room, had an entertaining television adaptation too in 2014.
Anyway, I hope the release of Lending the Key to the Locked Room is a nice end-of-year surprise for you. It's a genuinely entertaining locked room mystery that sure got me hooked on Higashigawa's mystery stories (seriously though, I'm going through old reviews now for this post and I only now realized this novel was the first full-length book of Higashigawa I ever reviewed). And if you're still looking for some more winter reading, why not try The Red Locked Room or perhaps the re-released The Decagon House Murders?

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Reader is Warned

Caveat lector

I might be deceiving the reader about today's book's contents in this review without actually lying too. Or not. *dundundun*

I have read locked room mysteries with locked room lectures, I have read mysteries about a dying message with a dying message lecture, I have read mysteries about a perfect alibi with an alibi lecture, I have read mysteries with decapitated corpses with a decapitation lecture, but I have not yet read a mystery novel with narrative trickery or unreliable narrators that feature a lecture about narrative trickery. Today's book however comes close: Nitadori Kei's short story collection Jojutsu Trick Tanpenshuu ("A Collection of Short Stories With Narrative Trickery" 2018) is surprisingly open and up-front about the main gimmick of the stories in this collection. The book opens with a daring Challenge to the Reader and openly declares that each of the stories you are about to read, will feature some kind of narrative trickery aimed at the reader. The stories are all about some, usually light-hearted mystery to be solved, but at the same time, these stories are written in a way to deceive the reader in one way or another, making it impossible for them to solve the mystery. But a warned reader won't be fooled.... right?

I've been interested in this book ever since I first saw the very literal title and the cute cover. There have been many (excellent!) mystery novels that feature some kind of narrative trickery aimed at the reader themselves, but usually, this is kept a secret until the twist ending where it's suddenly revealed that even though the reader believed that something was X, it was actually Y. Never before have I seen a detective story advertise the fact that it's about to deceive the reader directly and then dare them to see through the trickery! Note that 'narrative trickery' is broader than just the 'unreliable narrator' trope. I think these stories are actually at their best when they don't feature an unreliable narrator who blatantly lies to the reader in the narration or intentionally omits crucial facts that pertain to the mystery. A good mystery story with a narrative trick uses its narration to make the reader assume a certain fact, without ever saying so in that many words. The reader should be tricked to believe some fact, for example that character A is a male while she's actually a female, but the narration should never blatantly lie about it. A good mystery story with narrative trickery is simply written very carefully and skilfully to make the reader mistakenly assume something, but never resorts to simple lies. Some people find the unreliable narrator or narrative trickery in general unfair in mystery fiction, but I don't agree: a well-written mystery story with narrative trickery is fair in the sense that the wrong assumptions are always made by the reader themselves, and nobody (narrator/author) explicitly told them lies.

What's also important is that the mystery plot should never only revolve around the truth behind this narrative trickery and I think that's where Jojutsu Trick Tanpenshuu especially shines. Each of the stories in this volume revolve around a core mystery plot, though usually fairly light-hearted. The reader can usually solve most of the mystery 'as usual', but the reader is also always led to mistakenly assume certain facts or circumstances, and that's what prevents the reader from making that one final step to solve the mystery completely: this is not the case for the characters in the story themselves, which is why they do manage to solve the mystery before the reader and that's also what makes these stories feel fair, because the stories are solvable as shown by the characters who don't make the same false assumptions like the reader.

The collection opens with Chanto Nagasu Kamisama ("The God Who Makes Sure to Flush"), which is set at a small office. One of the toilets in the women's room upstairs has been clogged and the repair man has already been called, when the people at the office find out the toilet has now been unclogged. But the strange thing is: nobody at the office will admit to the fact they unclogged the toilet. But why would anyone lie about it, and why not just wait for the repair man who had been called already? What deepens the mystery is the fact there were witnesses outside in the corridor, so nobody could've brought all the necessary cleaning tools from the floor below to the bathroom without being seen, and yet that's what happened. A very fun opening story: the mystery of finding the 'culprit' who cleaned the bathroom is so wonderfully silly yet mundane. The motive of the culprit to remain silent about the act ties wonderfully to the narrative trickery aimed at the reader, who is expertly led to believe certain circumstances which makes the case harder to solve for them, but the characters in-universe quickly figure out who did it and why. The story's an excellent showcase for the narrative trickery employed in the book, for any assumptions about that made are entirely on the head of the reader.

The second story is relatively easier to solve: Senaka Awase no Koibito ("Lovers Back to Back") juggles between two narratives. At one hand, we follow Horiki Hikaru, a second-year college student who one day stumbles upon the SNS of a certain 'drizzle', the username of a girl called Hiramatsu Shiori. Hikaru loves the photographs and the interesting comments she posts on SNS and he slowly starts to become interested in the person behind the pictures. Surprisingly, he starts to recognize the backgrounds of the photographs however and comes to the realization that Hiramatsu Shiori is actually a student at the same university. Harboring feelings for her, he starts to look for her. Meanwhile, we also follow the story of Hiramatsu Shiori, an introverted member of the university's Photography Club, who has fallen in love with a kind senior student whom she doesn't know personally, but has seen helping other people around campus. She eventually learns the name of this student: Horiki Hikaru, brother of a fellow member of the club. The two come closer, when an incident occurs at the Photography Club: someone has switched the filters in the darkroom, ruining the photographs of the club president and both Shiori and Hikari get involved in this case. This one was the easiest case to solve in this collection, as it revolves around a certain narrative trick that is seen relatively often (the first story in comparison was really original), but the clewing in this story is also well-done, with a few lines of dialogue that should allow the reader to escape the misdirection if they hadn't caught on already.

Tojirareta Sannnin to Futari ("The Confined Trio and Duo") is the shortest story and starts with Adam, Hamilton and Will arguing over the death of Samson: the four of them have just committed a robbery and hid in a little cabin in the mountains, figuring the oncoming storm will certainly prevent the police from finding their trail. They found two Japanese persons in the cabin, who were promptly tied to their chairs. When the four armed robbers notice there's no connection on their phones, Adam, Hamilton and Will go out to see whether there's reception somewhere, leaving Samson alone. When they return however, they find Samson lying dead beneath the cliff outside the cabin. None of the robbers believe Samson just fell of the cliff, but the Japanese hostages are still tied tight to their chairs, so the shotgun-wielding robbers start to suspect each other of killing Samson to get a better cut. There's not much hinting to signify the 'punchline' of this story, but it's really funny and once you read the story again, you notice how wonderfully careful this story was written and how ingeniously the misdirection was set-up.

Nantonaku Katta Hon no Ketsumatsu ("The Ending of the Book Bought on a Whim") has the narrator recount the plot of the latest Inspector Saejima novel she recently bought to her boss, a bored bartender who likes puzzles and quizzes. The story is about a murder committed on an ordinary man who was out fishing on a Sunday. Rocks were thrown from the cliff overlooking his fishing spot, and it appears the man was targeted especially. Inspector Saejima starts poking around and ultimately arrives at the family of a faint acquaintance of the victim. Saejima figures the motive out, but can't seem to figure out which of the three family members did it, as they all have an alibi. The solution to this problem might perhaps miss the impact of other stories in this collection. The 'problem' is that the impossibility of this story isn't dwelled upon long enough, which kinda weakens the 'shock' the story could have, but I do think it's one of the best set-up stories, with an act of misdirection that is sooooo easy to miss and yet so ordinary. It's one of the most realistic narrative tricks, one hat any of us might have encountered in real life too by accident too and also a great example of how (socio-)linguistics can be featured in mystery fiction (socio-linguistics being a personal field of interest).

Binboushou no Kaijiken ("A Curious Incident With Poor People") is set in the Yuumeisou, a university dormitory reminiscent of Kyoto University's infamous Yoshida dormitory: it's an old, decrepit building (almost a ruin), but that's also reflected in the ridiculous low rent. Yuumeisou is mostly inhabitated by poor Japanese students, and poor international students from China, Thailand and more Asian countries. One night, the Chinese student Li cries out that something has been stolen from his room: a culinary delicacy which his mom sent over from China has been stolen from his bedroom. All the students in the dorm are gathered and eventually, they find out during what period in the night it must have been stolen, but it seems that none of the suspects could've stolen it, whether because they have a solid alibi or because they have proven to have not broken into Li's room. The story kinda plays with cultural stereotypes in terms of characterization, but it ultimately does tie in with the mystery plot in a meaningful manner and to be honest, I thought that piece of misdirection was a bit mean towards the reader, but I have to admit I fell for it completely.  There's also a deduction scene about who entered Li's room based on a set of sake bottles which was surprisingly clever: these stories aren't just about fooling the reader.

Side note: I've visited the Yoshida dormitory once while I was studying at Kyoto University. It was nuts inside.

In Nippon wo Seou Kokeshi ("The Kokeshi That Carries The Weight of Japan"), the narrator and her boss (the owner of a detective agency) are hired by a retired big-name politician of the ruling party. He wants them to track down the Headhunter, a progressive-liberal activist who has been active in Japan lately. The Headhunter's M.O. is to pull of some prank with statues all over Japan: in one case, a Darth Vader mask was put over a statue's face, while in another case, the head of a statue made from plastic was cut off and replaced with something different. While their client won't explain his reasons in detail, he ensures the detectives that "the fate of Japan" depends on them tracing down the Headhunter, and acting on a tip, everyone of the detective agency is sent to Sendai, as they have reasons to believe the gigantic kokeshi figure in Saikawa-chou will be targeted. The almost seven-meter tall doll at the station attracts tourism, so it's important they will protect it from the Headhunter's pranks. While the trains are still running, there's little fear of the Headhunter due to passenger traffic and the stores in the gallery, but things are different after the last train. The only way to reach the kokeshi is through the station gallery passage, so the detectives split up in two teams and monitor both the east and west exit of the passage. They carefully keep their eyes on everyone who passes through the gallery at night, as they can only perform a citizen's arrest if they catch the prankster red-handed. But the stake-out fails and they discover that the Headhunter succeeded in drawing two extra faces on the sides of the kokeshi doll. But strangely enough, they did not see one suspicious person enter or leave the passage: as the kokeshi's face is about six meters above ground, the Headhunter must have used some equipment, be it a ladder or rope, to climb up there, but nobody caught on camera had that much luggage with them, nor was anyone long enough in the passage to be able to draw two extra faces on the kokeshi. The explanation behind how the prank was pullled off is a bit silly if you visualize it, but it's a good ending to the book, as it incorporates elements from earlier stories.

Be sure to read what follows next to: I usually skip or just skim through afterwords, but points raised in the Challenge to the Reader at the beginning of the book are explained in detail here. The Challenge to the Reader also contained vague hints for the stories that followed, and the explanation of those hints (what they actually meant) can also be found here, so be sure to read on after Nippon wo Seou Kokeshi.

I enjoyed Jojutsu Trick Tanpenshuu a lot more than I had even anticipated though! It's really dangerous to declare out loud that you'll be trying to deceive the reader with the narration: by alerting the reader beforehand, the reader might be more inclined to see through the trickery employed and some people might find misdirection aimed explicitly at the reader to be unfair. I find that Nitadori Kei did a great job with Jojutsu Trick Tanpenshuu in terms of these points: the misdirection aimed at the reader employed is clever and often original, but always fair in the sense that he never blatantly lies and the attentive reader can actually avoid falling for his traps as long as they don't assume facts or circumstances just because they want to. And the way the misdirection aimed at the reader also ties in with the core mystery plot is also done well: the mysteries don't depend solely on the deceiving of the reader, but the misdirection is only one step in the process, and anyone who doesn't fall for the misdirection can just skip that step in the thinking process. The individual stories are actually quite interesting on their own too, even without the narrative trickery gimmick. Definitely one of my favorite reads of the year!

Original Japanese title(s):  似鳥鶏『叙述トリック短編集』:「ちゃんと流す神様」/「背中合わせの恋人」/「閉じられた三人と二人」/「なんとなく買った本の結末」/「貧乏性の怪事件」/「ニッポンを背負うこけし」

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Catcher on the Sly

"His whole frame at once -- within the space of a single minute, or even less, shrunk -- crumbled -- absolutely rotted away beneath my hands. Upon the bed, before that whole company, there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome -- of detestable putridity."
"The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar"

About the famous film line "Release the Kraken," why does the Greek Zeus even have control over a Kraken, which is from Scandinavian folklore? It's almost like Saint Seiya with its weird mix of mythologies from all over the world...

Rogan Kincaid, a gambler who knows how to get in trouble and out of trouble with either his wits or fists, travels to The Kraken, a small island off the Carolina coast at the invitation of Jack Frant, a casual acquaintance with amusing tall tales he met a year ago. Jack purchased the island and the mansion on it and has organized a little gathering, with the other guests including his half-brother Lord Evan Tethryn, the previous owners of The Kraken and a local doctor and his granddaughter. On the way to The Kraken though, Rogan is surprised by the storm, and thrown from his boat, but a lucky current brings his beaten body to The Kraken anyway. On the island, he discovers a lot happened at the party in his absence. Rogan first runs into Nancy Garwood, one of the other guests who seems to have trouble remembering what happened, but as the two talk and meet the other people in the house, she starts to remember: during the party Jack Frant tormented his younger brother Evan with stories of the family curse. An ancestor had dabbled with the forbidden art of alchemy and gained the power through the Undine Od to actually curse people to death. Jack had always made fun of Evan, who believed he did indeed have that power, but that night, Jack pushed too hard and Evan actually spoke out the words 'Od rot you, Jack! Od rot you!'. To the horror of everyone present, Jack fell dead on the spot. Rogan is of course not really convinced that Jack was killed by a spoken curse, but when they later go into Jack's room to check the corpse, they find that Jack's body has really decayed almost completely within just a few hours. The police is on its way to The Kraken, but as they are not likely to swallow the curse story, Rogan tries to poke here and there to make sure that he won't be the one to be accused of the crime in Hake Talbot's The Hangman's Handyman (1942).

The Hangman's Handyman was written two years before the much-beloved Rim of the Pit, also starring likeable rogue Rogan Kincaid, but I have to admit I remember next to nothing of that novel! Well, that book also features Rogan Kincaid and impossible murders with a supernatural theme, but I honestly can't recall any details of the murder. Or were there multiple ones? The Hangman's Handyman and Rim of the Pit were the only full-length Kincaid novels Talbot wrote by the way.

The atmosphere of The Hangman's Handyman may feel a bit pulpy at times, but it's definitely oozing character. The opening chapters where Rogan and Nancy start puzzling the events of that evening together based on Nancy's vague memories and the little they get from the other guests serve as a great introduction to the moment when it finally all comes together and the reader learns that the host of the party was cursed to death. References in the family curse story to the water elemental Undine gave me traumatic flashbacks to Oguri Mushitarou's Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken, but the way this ultimately leads to the discovery of the decayed body of Jack is absolutely fantastic. And the mystery itself is unique too of course: how could the corpse of a person who died only a few hours ago be decayed beyond recognition? The police arrives the following morning and obviously, they don't believe Jack was actually cursed to death, but even they start scratching their heads when they find out that the corpse, while unrecognizable, is really wearing all of Jack's clothes and jewelry and switching clothes with rotten corpses is a bit difficult, so it doesn't seem likely there had been a body switch. Talbot throws in a few more mysteries while he slowly makes his way to the finale, including a locked room assault on Kincaid (where's he found strangled in his own locked and bolted bedroom, but no trace of the assailant) and a mysterious visitor on the island, as well as the enigmatic term "Hangman's Handyman."

The Hangman's Handyman seen as a mystery story however, can be quite uneven. The explanation for the locked room assault on Kincaid for example is extremely ordinary and unimaginative, one of the most common solutions to a locked room mystery. Problem is that this also gives the reader very strong indications towards the identity of the culprit, so it's very regrettable that so much depends on a far too familiar execution of the trope. The story also hangs together by quite a number of coincidences (it just so happens five characters couldn't make it to the island due to the storm, but having so many people around certainly would've made the plan harder to perform for the culprit) or simple suspension of disbelief (wait, you're telling me the culprit had that much time to prepare for this crime and they still decided to go with this idea even though their initial motive to go with this idea is only valid if you have little time to consider other options?). The solution to the rotten body of Jack is a bit more interesting. While at the core, the idea is very simple, I do really like the misdirection that allows for this trick: the misdirection works for both the characters in the novel and the reader. It's so wonderfully simple, I can also imagine some readers will instantly pick up on what's being played here, though I have to admit I completely missed it and got caught in the trap. I love the kind of misdirection that goes on here, that invite you to believe something without ever actually stating that fact out loud, luring you into making the (wrong) assumption yourself. And the set-up of the most important clue was rather cleverly hidden too. I think the reader can point out that a lot of the plot is overly complicated for no reason than to be complicated, especially given the preperation time of the culprit: the plot would've made more sense if it'd run on a tighter time schedule, as while ultimately, the truth behind the term Hangman's Handyman does tie in with the motive in a convincing way initially, it doesn't work if you consider how much time the culprit had to come up with other solutions that didn't involve a cursed corpse.

This novel also goes into the backstory of Rogan Kincaid by the way, though I can't recall whether any of this is ever mentioned in Rim of the Pit. Some of it is a bit unbelievable, especially as it also ties into the core mystery plot (Kincaid's interactions with a certain character are used to prove that that character would have also acted like that with another character, but it's still a bit hard to swallow), but perhaps interesting for those with a weakness for the character.

The Hangman's Handyman makes for an entertaining read that especially sells on atmosphere. If you dive into the details of the mystery plot, you'll come across a few interesting ideas, but large portions also feel a bit chaotic or undeveloped, with some concepts lacking originality or simply the necessary story justification. As a complete package, The Hangman's Handyman lacks finesse as mystery, but can be enjoyed quite well as a horror-inspired story.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Training for Trouble

ねぇ忘れないでねblue bird
「blue bird」(Garnet Crow) 

Hey, don't forget me, blue bird
"blue bird" (Garnet Crow)

Earlier this year, I re-read the 5-volume manga series Gyakuten Saiban ("Turnabout Trial") by Kuroda Kenji (story) and Maekawa Kazuo (art), based on the comedic courtroom mystery videogame franchise Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney. While the short manga series did feature the familiar characters and settings from the videogames, the plots were created exclusively for this series by writer Kuroda Kenji, and in my review I mentioned how it's actually a very good mystery manga that could easily stand on its own and would also appeal to people without any knowledge of, or even interest in the videogames. The series was originally serialized irregularly between 2006 and 2008 in Young Magazine to cross-promote the 2007 release of the Nintendo DS game Gyakuten Saiban 4 (AKA Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney). 

In 2009, the spin-off game Gyakuten Kenji ("Turnabout Prosecutor") AKA Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth was released on the DS, which focused on the adventures of the prosecutor Mitsurugi (localized name: Miles Edgeworth), a rival character in the main series. The duo Kuroda and Maekawa were again made part of the marketing campaign, as they too started a new series based on this game. Gyakuten Kenji ran irregularly between 2009-2010 in Weekly and Monthly Young Magazine and consisted of eight stories collected in four volumes. In terms of setting, it followed the spin-off videogame: Mitsurugi is a prodigy prosecutor, who always teams up with the hapless police detective Itonokogiri (Dick Gumshoe) to conduct investigations at the crime scene to find the person they are going to bring to trial. While Itonokogiri often thinks the case is open-and-shut, Mitsurugi shows he's not called a prodigy for nothing by uncovering complex murder schemes based on his own investigations. After writing my review of the Gyakuten Saiban manga series, I also re-read this 4-volume series, but to be honest, I found the stories in Gyakuten Kenji not as memorable as the ones in Gyakuten Saiban and ultimately, I just didn't feel like writing anything about it.

So why am I talking about this series now? Well, Kuroda Kenji has been posting some of his unpublished stories/unfinished scenarios on his Note page for a while now, because he thought it would just be a shame if these stories would never see the light and be kept in the vault forever, despite all the effort he poured into them. And so, a few weeks ago, Kuroda also started posting the unpublished scenarios he had written for the Gyakuten Kenji manga! These scenarios were written over ten years ago, but ended on the cutting board. But now these ideas are given new life! I can only applaud such efforts to show the public this cut content, so obviously, I just had to write something about these stories, even though I haven't even written a review about the whole series.

Moesakaru Gyakuten ("The Blazing Turnabout") starts with a few cases of arson at the campus of Medaru Sports Academy, a renowed university with famous athletes who have won many awards. After another incident, detective Itonokogiri decides to visit the head of the school, Medaru Nozomu, in the hopes of learning more, but Medaru is very dismissive of Itonokogiri, assuring the police detective that these were not cases of arson, but just minor accidents of students not being careful with their cigarettes and things like that. It's obvious Medaru doesn't want the news to blow up, and he tries to get Itonokogiri out, but not before Itonokogiri has a chance to meet four of Medaru Sports Academy's finest, who will go an international event next month and are going to have dinner with Medaru now. That night, Itonokogiri hangs around the campus when he runs into one of the four students he met earlier, who has discovered a fire behind the training facility. They managed to extinguish the fire, but nearby, they find the strangled body of Kurama Manten, a gymnast who was one of the four students Itonokogiri met earlier that evening. Itonokogiri is convinced Kurama must've spotted the arsonist and was therefore killed, but when prosecutor Mitsurugi arrives on the scene and starts poking around himself, he discovers a very different motive for Kurama's death.

Those who have actually played the videogame Gyakuten Kenji/Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth might be able to guess why this story was canned. The title Moesakaru Gyakuten was originally intended to be the second story in the series, but the title sounded too much like the title of the final episode in the game it was supposed to promote: Moeagaru Gyakuten/Turnabout Ablaze. Kuroda didn't know about these details of the game, because he worked on the scenario before the game was released, but ultimately, this story was abandoned. A truly unfortunate coincidence and I'm happy he has now found a way to still release this story in a way. As you can see on Kuroda's Note page, it's just the core plot divided in scenes, with all the spoken lines of the characters and the important visual cues written out in detail. There's no art at all, and as far as we know, Maekawa never did create any art for this lost episode.

As a mystery story, The Blazing Turnabout is okay. I found the Gyakuten Kenji manga on the whole a bit disappointing, because I thought the turnabout theme of the series was never as strong as in the Gyakuten Saiban manga series. There were always elements of things turning out to be actually the other way around, but in the spin-off series, the moments always felt less impressive. The same can be said of The Blazing Turnabout: there is a really clever moment where Mitsurugi points out that one certain action of the arsonist-murderer was taken for a completely different reason than you'd first assume, but it feels detached from the rest of the mystery plot. A shame actually, because I love this turnabout part of this story! It reminds of two of my favorite stories in Puzzle Game ☆ High School in terms of what the real goal of the culprit was, and really challenges you to think outside the box. So the 'grand' turnabout moment the story works towards to is really good, even if it's not as grand as we've seen in the main Gyakuten Saiban manga series and admittedly, more hinting would've been welcome: Mitsurugi's realization kinda comes out of nowhere. Other parts of the plot make less of an impression: the identity of the murderer is awfully obvious because it's the one single character who's been given a trait to make them stand out, while earlier parts of the investigation feature very easy to spot "contradictions" or simply Mitsurugi receiving a report that outright tells him something is off. 

In hindsight, the "special school" setting of this story is pretty interesting: the 3DS game Gyakuten Saiban 5/Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies (2013) would eventually also feature a similar setting, though with a special law high school rather than a sports academy. I wonder if this chapter had been published, whether it would've worked the other way around too, and whether the writers for Gyakuten Saiban 5 would've refrained from using a school setting for their game.

Toki no Yakata no Gyakuten ("Turnabout in the House of Time") is an inverted mystery story, which is interesting because Kuroda never wrote any inverted stories for both the Gyakuten Saiban and Kenji series, and now we learn that he did actually write one, but he canned the idea! Tokita Shinnosuke is the founder of TOKITA, a luxury watchmaker. He is retired now, giving him time to spend with his antique watch collection. Or at least, that's what he hoped for, but his son Ryuuzu, who is running TOKITA now is ruining Shinnosuke's life work, and when he learns of Ryuuzu's intentions of selling the company, Shinnosuke decides to take his own son's life. At his own 77th birthday reception, Shinnosuke tells his guests he'll be leaving them for thirty minutes to wind his antique clocks, a daily routine he never skips. He however uses the time to kill his son, who was parked down the hill on top where the Tokita manor stands. When prosecutor Mitsurugi and police detective Itonokogiri arrive on the scene however, their investigation tells them Shinnosuke of all people couldn't have killed his own son in the blank periode of thirty minutes when he was alone, because he is in a wheelchair. Tokita Manor stands at top of a very steep hill, while his son was killed down the street, on the parking lot at the foot of the slope: the slope is too steep for Shinnosuke to safely descend on his own, and also far too steep to climb with his arm strength. Apartment buildings are lined along the hill street, so the image of an the old man struggling to climb the hill in a wheelchair would've been noticed by someone, while the less steep, but roundabout path would take much more than thirty minutes. So how did the man kill his son within half an hour?

This is a truly interesting story to read as a scenario for a comic, because its greatest moment, when Mitsurugi reveals to the reader how Shinnosuke did manage to kill his son within the thirty minutes, is definitely designed to be seen as a comic book panel! You really feel that this plot was written with the visual medium in mind, because it works towards a fantastic shot where you suddenly see how simple, but brilliant Shinnosuke's trick was to get to and back from the crime scene in time while in a wheelchair. The 'turnabout' theme is again not particularly strong here, but as a short mystery story, it definitely has interesting ideas, even if the clewing is a bit too crude (culprit dropping crucial piece of evidence on floor is not really exciting). But the basic idea of how Shinnosuke managed to create a "secret route" to kill his son is really original, and would've looked great on paper.

After posting the scenarios of the two unpublished comics above, Kuroda followed up with one final surprise. In 2007, Kuroda wrote the first original short mystery prose story for the franchise: Gyakuten Saiban - Gyakuten no Kakehashi was a fun novelette-sized impossible crime story that followed the same format as the Gyakuten Saiban manga, focusing on the courtroom adventures of Naruhodou Ryuuichi (Phoenix Wright) and Mayoi (Maya Fey). Kuroda apparently had plans for a second novelette story, and had hoped to have the two stories published as one single volume, but that dream never became reality, so the plot for this second story was put away, until he posted them on his Note.

Gyakuten no Michishirube ("Turnabout Signpost") is a direct sequel to Gyakuten no Kakehashi, and starts at Yatabuki's noodle stand, where Mayoi, Kanae and Yatabuki are thrilled to see the show by the popular five-man comedy act The Green Monsters tomorrow, to be held at the Twins Hotel where Gyakuten no Kakehashi took place. The Green Monsters have been an enormous hit and consist of five people dressed as monsters with green as their trademark color. The five also had completely different careers before they switched to comedy: Monster King was a stuntman, Monster Queen a model, Dracula a doctor, Wolfman a guitarist and Franken a wrestler. Mitsurugi stops by the noodle stand however to bring bad news: Monster King has died, and the circumstances suggest that Monster Queen killed him. Last night, the five members had been drinking together in Monster King's suite room until late. When the party was over, Dracula, Wolfman and Franken left the twelfth floor, as the two suite rooms on the twelfth floor were occupied by Monster King and Queen. Guards had been posted at the elevator because Monster King has a stalker, and they swear that after Dracula, Wolfman and Franken left, only King and Queen remained on the twelfth floor. Later that night, Dracula, Wolfman and Franken went outside to the court to rehearse their act, when they witnessed how Monster King plunged to his death, having fallen from an old emergency door on the twelfth floor: the door had been in disuse and locked because the emergency stairs had been removed so the door led to nothing, but someone had forced the door open and Monster King fell through that door. Because the three heard him cry for help before he fell, they know it's not a suicide, and because Queen was the only other person on the twelfth floor, she's the main suspect. She however maintains she's innocent and hires Naruhodou as her attorney.

Wow, this was surprisingly fun! While the plot is mostly dialogue and there are some segments that would need to be worked out in more detail in terms of setting clues up, this scenario definitely had potential to have been an interesting locked room mystery! The story revolves around two 'locked spaces', being the twelfth floor of the Twins Hotel as a whole, as well as Monster King's suite room with autolock and the mystery revolves around who could've broken through those locked rooms. The argument goes back and forth in the courtroom as at one moment Naruhodou manages to avert suspicion away from his client, while the other moment a new witness appears who points the arrow back at Monster Queen: exactly like you expect from the series. The plot is slowly revealed in the trial, and the grand trick used by the killer to kill Monster King is definitely the kind of idea you'd expect from this series, with a proper "turnabout" theme, and I've loved to have seen this story worked out completely. I do have to say the plot does work better when you imagine the scene visually, so it's a bit weird Kuroda planned this as a prose story, instead of using the idea in the manga series... Though to be honest, this story does mirror some concepts from another story already featured in the manga.

I wouldn't consider either Moesakaru Gyakuten or Toki no Yakata no Gyakuten hidden masterpieces that had been wrongfully been kept away from us, but they are reasonably entertaining short mystery stories that would've been perfect additions to the published Gyakuten Kenji manga series. The prose story Gyakuten no Michishirube would've been very entertaining as a mystery story too, so it's such a shame Kuroda never got to release his own Gyakuten Saiban volume together with his earlier Gyakuten no Kakehashi. Anyway, as full-fledged "extra" stories revealed ten years after these series originally, I quite enjoyed reading them. But most of all, I can only say I love the idea of creators digging up old material that have gone unpublished/were cut for various reasons like this and making them available to the public. Obviously, I don't expect them to actually work the whole thing out, but even scenarios like these are fantastic material!

Original Japanese title(s): 黒田研二『逆転検事 ヤンマガ版未発表脚本』『逆転裁判 小説版未発表プロット』

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

The Landing Ticket


It's morning /  The first train / The train is running
The 05:30 of the Saikyo-Line
On my way to the company faraway
The train is running today too
「電車で電車でGO!GO!」(Junkie As Machine/Zuntata)

I try to read at least one novel a year (partially) set in the city of Fukuoka. The first review of last year was Gekisou Fukuoka Kokusai Marathon - 42.195 Kilo no Nazo for example. I started with today's book because the summary mentioned Fukuoka as part of the alibi, but sadly enough, the reader doesn't actually get to visit the city themselves and the few mentions to the city are pretty sober. Ah well, I'll still count this as my 'one-in-a-year' as the story, at one point, does revolve slightly around specific Fukuoka geography.

Disclosure: I have translated Arisugawa Alice's The Moai Island Puzzle.

One morning, Yukari receives a call from the police with horrible news: her older sister Megumi (her only living relative) was found murdered in her holiday villa near Lake Yogo, just north of Lake Biwa. Megumi and her husband were to stay there a few days starting the day before, but business had prevented Shinichi from leaving his antique shop, and Megumi, who had arrived at the villa early, would spend the first night alone at the lake. She was murdered the following morning, and the police had discovered her body thanks to an anonymous phone call. Because her life insurance seems rather extravagant, the police and Yukari suspect that Shinichi killed his own wife with the help of his twin brother Kenichi, but the twins have perfect alibis: on the morning of Megumi's murder, Shinichi recalled he had an earlier made business appointment, and he took the Shinkansen train south to Fukuoka to meet with a collector there. Twin brother Kenichi too had been on a business trip that morning, travelling by train all the way up north to Sakata in Yamagata. Both arrived at their destinations in the afternoon, and several witnesses confirm having seen the two men at their respective routes at various points like the station. Yukari confides her suspicions about her brother-in-law with the mystery author Sorachi Masaya, a mutual friend of both Megumi and Shinichi, and Megumi's former boyfriend during college. Together they hire a private detective, who can't seem to find anything suspicious about Shinichi. The investigation runs into a wall until several months later, another body is found at the Lake Yogo villa. Another anonymous phone call leads the police to a body with the head and hands removed. The police is quite sure that the body belongs to either Shinichi or Kenichi, but both men have disappeared and it's impossible to tell which brother the body belongs to.

Magic Mirror (1990) is the third full-length novel by Arisugawa Alice, after Gekkou Game (1989) and The Moai Island Puzzle (1989). It was also his first novel that wasn't part of any series, and while I have read quite a lot by Arisugawa by now, it took me until now to read a non-series work by him. While his first two novels were clearly written in the spirit of Ellery Queen and the school that puts emphasis on logical reasoning, Arisugawa's third outing takes inspiration from F.W. Crofts, Ayukawa Tetsuya and (early) Matsumoto Seichou, being a mystery revolving around uncrackable alibis and an emphasis on time tables. In fact, like often seen in Ayukawa and Matsumoto's work, we actually have real train time schedules featured in this book. It's one of the elements that set Magic Mirror apart from the two earlier novels starring the student Alice, which are patterned after the more fanciful "good old closed circle on an isolated island/area closed off after a volcano eruption" tropes, while Magic Mirror is a a bit more realistic in tone (don't worry, it's still a puzzle-oriented mystery).

The first half of the novel revolves around the attempts of various parties trying to figure out whether Shinichi on his own, or with the help of his twin brother, killed Megumi and by extension, how they managed to have a perfect alibi for the time of the murder. Shinichi seems the most suspicious at first, but witnesses have seen him purchasing a ticket to Hakata Station, buying gifts at the station and he arrived in time at his business relation's place in the afternoon and a similar story holds for Kenichi. A large part of this mystery is solved early on in the novel by one of the characters, though the theory is still imperfect due to the existence of one piece of evidence. Due to that, the character has to abandon their theory for the moment, but this final hurdle is actually relatively easy to solve for the reader. While you can solve it "in a perfect" manner by actually examining the time schedules etc. included closely, I bet most people can instinctively make a good guess about how that piece of evidence was cooked (and check afterwards with the schedules). So this part is a bit easy, because a good part of the trick is already presented to the reader early on, while that last step is not as hard as the story pretends it to be. This murder feels the most 'realistic' in the sense that a lot of the mystery revolves around real time tables of means of transportations and real Fukuoka geography, so if you liked Matsumoto's Points and Lines, you'll feel right at home here.

The second murder, of the unknown decapitated body, is a lot more interesting though. What is interesting about Magic Mirror is that it starts off telling you there are twins involved. Usually, you'd think having twins in a story about a perfect alibi would be very, very cheap. In Magic Mirror, even knowing twins are involved doesn't mean you'll instantly figure out how Megumi was killed, and the plot device of the twins is turned upside down in the second half of the novel, when we are presented with a body which belongs to one of the twins, but you don't know which. This part is a bit more engaging: there's a part where Sorachi is convinced the man suspected by the police must be innocent, so he tries to find evidence to support that man's flimsy alibi of having been drinking at various places on the night of the murder. This part features a small, but nicely foreshadowed trick hidden within the man's testimony about his movements. But the murder on the unknown victim itself also proves to be an interesting murder: it makes fantastic use of the notion of twins, utilizing them in a very original manner to do something. I can't say too much because that would spoil the game, but I really like how the culprit used the fact that Shinichi en Kenichi were twins to completely befuddle the police investigation. I also like the one slip-up the murderer made that forced their hand as a concept, but as it was used here, it did feel like a bit too much coincidence: the murderer would have made a pretty brilliant plan for the murder, but goofed up at rather silly and trivial moments.

I have mentioned this novel before in this blog, as this novel is probably best known for its Alibi Lecture in the penultimate chapter and in my post on taxonomies/typologies/lectures, I made a short translation of the points raised in that Alibi Lecture. The Alibi Lecture is of course inspired by Doctor Fell's Locked Room Lecture, but the funny thing is that this is actually a lecture: Sorachi is invited by a college mystery club to hold a lecture on the Alibi Lecture he wrote in one of his novels, and in this chapter, Sorachi explains the types of tricks used in mystery novels to create a perfect alibi. Like in most novels featuring such trope lectures, it's an implied Challenge to the Reader to see if they can guess what kind of trick this particular novel is using, and perhaps even guess if this book is using a completely new type of solution. The Moai Island Puzzle featured a short Dying Message Lecture by the way. Obviously, both murders use some kind of alibi trick, and I don't consider it really spoilers to say that Arisugawa has of course come up with variations that are original on their own, and like it should be, the Lecture functions as both a solid clue to the reader (as it helps people not familiar with these types of stories), as a clever piece of misdirection (diverting the reader's attention by onlylisting what is seemingly possible, while pointing away from the actual solution).

Usually when I finish a novel, I have a fairly good idea of what I actually think of the story, and that also influences how I write the review. With Magic Mirror, I have to admit I was less enthusiastic about it when I first finished it, but as I am writing this review the following day, I notice I'm a lot more positive about the book now. While I think the final 'obstacle' in solving Megumi's murder is far easier than the book pretends it to be, I find that Magic Mirror does a really good job at utilizing the themes of the perfect alibi and twins in mystery fiction: it poses alluring mysteries to the reader that incorporate the fact we all know twins are involved and the second murder especially is interesting because of that. The result is a novel that keeps up a good pace from start to finish and which should entertain fans of the perfect alibi story.

Original Japanese title(s): 有栖川有栖『マジックミラー』